I expect readers of a history column to be aware of the importance of the U.S. census, and thus you have probably completed your 2020 U.S. Census questionnaire. A surprising number of people, however, have failed to respond online, by telephone or on paper, and ultimately Census Bureau employees will identify missing responses.
While the census is not necessarily intended to provide a historical snapshot of the country, it does just that. Anyone doing extensive research in state and local history uses the census, sometimes by actually searching out people, but also by consulting some of the myriad publications and analyses produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. For family historians, census records are absolutely indispensable.
I am not particularly objective when it comes to the census, being a member of the Hot Spring County Complete Count Committee, which my wife, Mary Frost Dillard, chairs. Our goal is to ensure that residents of this historic county -- established in 1829 -- are fully counted.
A national census, conducted at a term of 10 years, is mandated by the U.S. Constitution in Article I. The first national census was undertaken in 1790, shortly after Gen. George Washington became president. The actual enumeration was assigned to the U.S. marshals and their deputies, and a total of 3.9 million people were counted -- which many considered an undercount.
Only the heads of households were listed by name in the first census. For military planning purposes, free white males age 16 and over were separately counted. Free white females and children were counted but not listed by name, the same procedure used in reporting the number of slaves.
The U.S. marshals and their assistants were not furnished supplies, so a vast hodgepodge of records was sent to Washington, ranging from notes scribbled on scraps of paper to carefully recorded entries in bound notebooks. Arkansas was first included in the 1810 census of the Missouri Territory, but it is believed that few of these proto-Arkansans were counted.
The U.S. marshals conducted the censuses until 1880, when Congress authorized the Department of the Interior to establish a census office and hire staff on a temporary basis. In 1903 a separate Census Bureau, with professional staff, was created in the Interior Department.
The 1870 census was the first to provide information on the black population, including listing by name. Keep in mind that the race of the person being counted was determined by the almost always white enumerators. Indeed, the census administrators in Washington have always provided rather strict guidance on race. In 1860 enumerators were told to describe slaves by color: "... where the person is black without admixture insert the letter 'B;' if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write 'M;' if an Indian, write 'Ind.' It is very desirable to have these directions carefully observed."
During the 1880 census, more hardened language was to be used in describing black citizens: "Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto," the instruction warned. Mulatto was to include "quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class ..."
As widely known Arkansas genealogist Desmond Walls Allen has noted, by the 1940 census, enumerators were given very specific instructions on recording race. A person of mixed blood was to be "returned as a Negro, no matter how small a percentage of Negro blood." People of mixed Indian-Negro blood "should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood very definitely predominates and he is universally accepted in the community as an Indian."
The 1870 census was the first to include Chinese immigrants, just in time to count the recently arrived laborers brought to Arkansas during Reconstruction. It seems that most of the approximately 100 Chinese immigrants recorded in Arkansas were working on large cotton plantations in southeastern Arkansas. The phonetically spelled names were probably approximations -- one worker on a cotton plantation at Red Fork in Desha County was recorded as James Wongsefat.
In 1840, the census included questions on agricultural production, a development the Arkansas Gazette editor found "gratifying." Questions ranged from the number of horses and mules owned to bushels "of Indian corn" grown and pounds of silk cocoons produced.
Sometimes the agricultural census reports contain unexpected data. For example, in 1860, with the Civil War looming, Arkansas farmers owned more "working oxen" than mules -- 78,707 to 57,358. According to the same agricultural census, Arkansas farmers produced 16,831 pounds of rice, mostly in Chicot and Jefferson counties. This is almost 50 years before rice farming made its grand debut on the Grand Prairie.
As early as the 1810 census, officials were asking about employment, manufacturing and other economically important matters. Some interesting occupations were listed in the 1850 census for Pulaski County. While 434 people were farmers, 229 were laborers, 22 were physicians, one was a professional musician, nine were cobblers, and 20 were blacksmiths. The city of Little Rock was home to one dancing master, three professional gardeners, five stagecoach drivers and one man who listed himself as a "speculator." Bookbinders and saddle makers were counted in low numbers, and only one silversmith lived in the county.
A special effort is being made this year in some jurisdictions to count previously undercounted people: young children, immigrants, minorities. Immigrants have traditionally been a difficult group to count, often due to misunderstandings and distrust of government. The Gazette reported in February 1920 that census enumerators found many German immigrants in Little Rock fearful "it was some plan of the government to deport them."
A German-speaking resident of Des Arc in Prairie County was arrested for refusing to respond to census questions; an unidentified reporter for the Gazette described the defendant as "not a fluent speaker of the Queen's English, and in his little German way, took offense ..." Greek workers in Arkansas were reported to "have a fear of all this questioning." Others feared answering the census questions would result in higher taxes.
In 1890, black enumerators working in Prairie County were accosted by "a party of disguised men" who stated that "if they or any other Negroes should attempt to take the census in Prairie County, they would be killed."
Jacob Trieber, a Jewish lawyer of Helena and census superintendent for Arkansas, urged the intimidated employees to identify and report to the district attorney the names of the threatening parties. Thirty years later Trieber, as a federal judge, would play a dramatic role in freeing the 12 black men unfairly sentenced to death in sham trials following the Elaine Massacre of 1919.
If for no other reason, Arkansans should eagerly complete the census questionnaire because it records the role everyone plays in building our state and nation. The 2020 census will not be opened to the public until after the statutory 70-years embargo, so it will be 2090 before your descendants can seek you out and learn about your link in the chain of human history in a place called Arkansas.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.